For American Muslim women, the hijab symbolizes the right to choose

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Nazma Khan, the founder of World Hijab Day, started the initiative with a mission to “dismantle bigotry, discrimination and prejudice against Muslim women” who choose to wear the veil. (Marquis Perkins)


As the only hijabi student at her school in Bronx, New York, in the 90s, Nazma Khan faced so much Islamophobia that she considered dropping out. His classmates called Bangladeshi immigrants names such as “ninja”, “Batman” and “Mother Teresa”. She was pushed, kicked and spat on by students, who often waited outside her classroom to try to remove her headscarf.

After 9/11, as a recent college graduate living in New York as a visibly Muslim woman, Khan said hijabophobia only got worse and she was chased down the streets of the city. town and labeled a terrorist. Still, Khan said she loved wearing her hijab, an “outward expression of my inner faith”, and wanted to help women and girls like her who were being abused.

“I kept thinking about it and thinking, ‘What if I asked women from all walks of life to wear the hijab for a day?'” she said. “Maybe they will see that I am not hiding a bomb under my scarf or that this scarf has no life of its own to oppress me.

After three years of brainstorming the idea, Khan founded World Hijab Day in 2013. The February holiday encourages people to spend a day donning hijabs in a bid to normalize them and challenge false assumptions about the headgear. Since its inception, not all Muslims have cheered on the annual event, but it has quickly grown in popularity, spreading to more than 150 countries.

For Muslim women, wearing the hijab is an act of worship as well as a way of practicing modesty, a principle expected in the behavior and dress of all Muslims. Although the visibility of head coverings has made women targets of Islamophobia, Muslim women who wear the hijab in the United States say the decision to wear the head covering is liberating. By sharing their various hijabi journeys, they say they are proof that Muslim women are not a monolith.

When Houston author and illustrator Huda Fahmy started wearing a hijab at age 10, she felt the pressure to be perfect and live up to the piety that comes with it. As she got older, she realized that she didn’t need to fit a mold for the hijab to be an integral part of her practice of Islam.

Muslim women wearing the hijab face a lot of discrimination. It’s like that.

“Often we are reduced to having the same experiences,” Fahmy said. But “every hijabi has a different relationship with her headscarf and with her religion and how she decides to wear it and present herself.”

In his comics, such as “Yes, I’m Hot in This” and the upcoming “Huda F Cares”, Fahmy uses humor to work through stereotypes and tell stories about nuanced hijabi characters, like someone one who enjoys wearing their hijab and doesn’t struggle with the desire to wear it, or someone who is part of a large Muslim community.

Fahmy has always loved comic books, but felt drawn to cartooning as a career in 2016, forced to fight the Islamophobic narratives of politicians such as Donald Trump who talked about Muslims without talking to Muslims.

Bushra Amiwala, 25, who is the youngest member of the school board in Skokie, Illinois, said she also noticed the sentiment at the time and how the treatment of Muslims “comes and goes. depending on the political climate.

This helped her make the decision to wear the hijab easily, both as another step forward in her religious journey and as a way to destigmatize the hijab. “My intention of wearing the hijab was to rewrite the preconceived notion that people had of Muslim women before it became firmly entrenched in their minds,” she said. “And I thought the best way to do that is when our thoughts and beliefs are malleable: in high school.”

His plan worked. When Amiwala went to high school wearing her hijab, she answered a lot of questions from her classmates, like she still washes her hair, which she does. As a school board member, she also supported legislation that addressed the lack of in-depth education about Islam and other religions in Illinois public schools.

“I am so grateful to live in an area where I have a choice. It takes me to another level,” she said. “I can freely choose to cover my head, and it’s a choice I make and can see through.”

Iman Zawahry made the choice to start wearing the hijab in her second year of college in a bid to dispel stereotypes. Sometimes, when she meets people for the first time, she says they are surprised by her personality: loud and funny, without a foreign accent.

She hopes her work as a filmmaker can also bring more Muslim stories to the fore, ones that don’t revolve around terrorism or the over-sexualization of women. One of the films she directed, “Americanish,” released in 2021, is the first American Muslim romantic comedy directed by an American Muslim woman and was acquired by Sony Pictures International Productions.

“It’s just a romantic comedy, but it’s a romantic comedy with three brunette Pakistani Muslim women, and they’re directing the movie. It’s not a crazy idea, but it’s something we don’t we haven’t seen,” Zawahry said. “These are the stories that I connected with when I was growing up, and I really wanted to see them through my eyes.”

From wearing a hijab on set to ensuring hijabis are represented on screen, Zawahry is passionate about activism and promoting Muslim American visibility. “That’s what I want the film to do: create awareness, change and inspire people to become better members of the community,” she said.

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